August 21, 2013

McPartland, jazz legend and radio host, dies at 95

The Washington Post

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In this March 2008 photo, Marian McPartland plays piano during a celebration of her 90th birthday in New York.

AP

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In this Nov. 13, 2007, file photo, Marian McPartland talks with students at the University of South Carolina during a master class at the School of Music in Columbia, S.C. McPartland, 95, the legendary jazz pianist and host of the National Public Radio show "Piano Jazz," died of natural causes Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013 at her Port Washington home on Long Island, NY (AP Photo/Brett Flashnick, File)

NPR remembers Marian McPartland

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After touring England with a vaudeville group, she began entertaining troops in Britain during World War II. In 1943, she joined the USO, which allowed her to travel throughout western Europe, entertaining U.S. soldiers near the front.

She worked alongside Fred Astaire and Dinah Shore, and in 1944 met a raffish cornet player from Chicago named Jimmy McPartland. He was well-regarded in traditional Dixieland jazz circles, and had been friends with Bix Beiderbecke, the tortured jazz genius of the 1920s.

After a quick courtship, they were married in Germany in February 1945.

"The war was on," McPartland told The Washington Post in 1991. "It was a case of propinquity. . . . I'm sure it sounds awful, but the war was so . . . was so romantic."

The couple came to the United States in 1946 and settled in Chicago, where McPartland began working with her husband. Before long, though, she became fascinated by the more challenging sounds of bebop. By the time she moved to New York in 1950, she was well on her way to becoming one of the few musicians adept in both traditional and modern styles of jazz.

Longtime jazz critic Nat Hentoff, who has followed McPartland's career since the 1950s, described her musical strengths in a 2008 Wall Street Journal article:

"Her music . . . portrays a fullness of piano mastery that gives her a secure scope for her improvising . . . she shows that the jazz pulse and luminous beauty are not antithetical."

For several years in the 1950s, McPartland's drummer was Joe Morello, who went on to a dynamic career with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Years later, McPartland acknowledged that she and Morello had a long, intense affair, though both were married to other people.

It was "an insane, besotted love," McPartland wrote in a personal journal quoted in de Barros's biography, complete with clandestine meetings at airports, as well as vacations together. The affair lasted about seven years before she broke it off.

She underwent years of psychotherapy and, in the late 1960s, divorced Jimmy McPartland. She and Morello, who died in 2011, never married but remained on friendly terms and had occasional musical reunions. The affair "put me through some terrible changes," McPartland wrote, "but it was all worth it."

As early as 1949, she began writing reviews and essays for DownBeat and other musical journals. She collected her writings in "All in Good Time" in 1987 (it was republished in an expanded version in 2005).

She composed songs that were recorded by Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughan, among others, and established her own record label in the late 1960s, when major labels began to drop jazz.

She also turned to broadcasting in the 1960s with a weekly show on WBAI-FM in New York. She played records, conducted interviews and discovered a rare talent for describing the elusive art of jazz, as well as for getting musicians to talk about their lives.

Those were the skills she used to make "Piano Jazz" such a fresh and illuminating show. She and a guest — usually but not always a pianist — would spend an hour playing music together and discussing the performer's personal story. It made for revelatory radio, as McPartland explored the musical impulses, humor and insights of almost 800 musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing, Ray Charles, Bill Evans, Carmen McRae and Wynton Marsalis.

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